Turning a fascination for vacuum into real applications and products — the history of industrial vacuum engineering is closely connected to the name Pfeiffer Vacuum. Ever since 1890, everything at Asslar/Germany has revolved around the valuable “nothingness” of vacuum. “The perfect vacuum solution for every challenge” is the bold claim of the company from Hesse in Germany. Chief Executive Officer Dr. Eric Taberlet spoke to us about challenges and future developments at the company.
Whether vacuum pumps, measuring equipment, analysis systems or complex vacuum systems — the quality of the products always plays the key role. The success of Pfeiffer Vacuum is built on close cooperation with its customers from wide-ranging industries, along with its commitment to continuous development work and the dedication of its employees.
PROCESS: Dr. Taberlet, what is so special about vacuum technology?
Dr. Eric Taberlet: Every aspect of all the technology relating to vacuum is fascinating, not just the vacuum pump itself. Basically, new applications open up every day. Even if it appears at first glance that all we deliver is “nothing” — vacuum is always a critical parameter in the process, because it is very complex to control.
PROCESS: So, what is it about vacuum technology that is so challenging?
Taberlet: It takes a significant amount of know-how to establish a truly stable vacuum over a long period of time. On top of this, we serve a very large number of different industries. Each one has its own challenges, and each one requires special knowledge. But this is exactly what makes the technology so exciting.
PROCESS: For 129 years, the name Pfeiffer Vacuum has been a byword for innovative and individual vacuum solutions all around the world. Please tell us — how have you managed to retain this technology leadership for such a long period of time?
Taberlet: The success is clearly based on the employees, with their incredible levels of experience and know-how. Another factor is certainly the width of products and services we offer. As already mentioned, we have never just looked at single pumps, but have instead always kept an eye on the complete vacuum system. This also includes gas analysis systems, leak detectors or calibration pumping stations.
PROCESS: Is it a challenge to run a worldwide operation from such a down-to-earth, relatively rural site in central Hesse?
Taberlet: Not at all, the University of Giessen is nearby, and the traffic connections are good. And in any case, it is not important to us to be the biggest company. Instead, we want to be able to react quickly and provide every customer with an excellent solution. We are a down-to-earth, medium-sized company that is open for all customers — even if they come with demands for highly specific solutions. This needs to be reflected both in terms of the advice we offer and the products we supply.
Application Knowledge Is Decisive in Vacuum Technology
PROCESS: This no doubt results in a large number of applications. How many does Pfeiffer Vacuum supply?
Taberlet: Off the top of my head, I would say that there must be hundreds — from the production of everyday objects like thermos flasks to the analysis of doping samples or coating processes right up to semiconductor manufacturing, to name just a few example applications. But if you take a closer look and focus just on e.g. the field of freeze drying, this type of number stops being meaningful. The freeze drying alone of, say, coffee or fruit involves completely different technologies, and new applications are being added all the time.
PROCESS: From your point of view, which applications are becoming more important for vacuum technology?
Taberlet: Certainly, anything to do with energy, for example the production of lithium-ion batteries. Here, leak testing plays a pivotal role because no moisture must be allowed to enter into the battery. Another hot topic for the future is flywheel generators. These energy storage devices enable extremely energy-saving drive systems for vehicles and are set to revolutionize the entire transport sector very soon. Our Duo 3 DC rotary vane pump is predestined for this application.
In the chemistry sector, vacuum distillation, the production of polyisocyanates and compliance with Atex regulations are current topics we are working on. Our magnetically-coupled pumps are used here — with two key advantages over pumps that feature a claw coupling. Firstly, there is no escape of explosive gases. Secondly, the magnetically coupled pumps are maintenance-friendly, as they can be dismounted very quickly
Will the Vacuum Technology Become Digital?
PROCESS: And what about future topics like Industry 4.0 in your industry?
Taberlet: It goes without saying that digitalization and, associated with that, intelligent interface technology are both becoming steadily more important in vacuum technology. For this reason, we have set up a dedicated department that is working intensively on these topics. But in this context, I would also like to highlight things like Predictive Maintenance and Service. Many companies don’t like talking about them — out of fear that this might imply that the quality of their products was poor. But quite the opposite is the case: It takes a well thought-out and reliable service concept to guarantee consistent product quality for our customers.
For us, the service business therefore plays an extremely important role. And, by the way, depending on the industry this is not always just a question of service. As a manufacturer, you also carry a social responsibility. For example, vacuum is used for leak testing in medical technology, e.g. on pacemakers. We are talking about people’s lives here, not just product quality. In order to guarantee the high quality of our products, we use a range of different strategies, starting from the supplies of spare parts we keep in stock and ranging all the way up to special training programs.
PROCESS: To summarize — if we were to ask you to describe the strengths of your company in three sentences ...
Taberlet: We are very good at expanding our portfolio, as we are driven by the ambition of providing every customer with the perfect vacuum solution for their application. This leads to very specific solutions, which can only be achieved through very close cooperation with the customer. To put it in a nutshell: We are constantly on the move.
PROCESS: Dr. Taberlet, thank you for the interview.